Last week, I responded in my blog to the death of Jack Kevorkian, known to his medical colleagues first, and the world later, as “Dr. Death.” Over the past week, I have followed the national media’s treatment of Kevorkian’s passing, and among the various responses, one editorial letter published online by the Washington Post (June 7) caught my particular attention. In that letter, retired Episcopalian priest Edward Morgan III commented,
“Recently I was invited to speak at a retirement community on ‘faithful dying.’ Toward the end of my presentation, one man asked me what I thought about Dr. Kevorkian. Not wishing to overstay my time limit, I kept it simple: ‘I know he has the nickname ‘Dr. Death,’ but I call him ‘Dr. Compassion’ . . . I am not worthy to address the complexities faced by medical practitioners — God bless them all! — but consider one of the Hippocratic Oath’s first charges: ‘That into whatsoever house you shall enter, it shall be for the good of the sick to the utmost of your power.’ When physical healing is not possible, is not what Dr. Kevorkian sought for his patients the higher good?”
As I thought about Morgan’s invocation of the Hippocratic tradition in defense of Kevorkian, my first thought was, “what about ‘do no harm?’” From my prior studies, I knew that while those words are not explicitly stated in the Hippocratic Oath, they do represent a major thrust of this long-honored code. More to the issue of Morgan’s concern, I specifically recalled the Hippocratic injunction against physician involvement in euthanasia, which, per the late Ludwig Edelstein, reads as
“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”
Assuming Morgan was familiar with the Oath in its entirety, his appeal to the venerated Hippocratic tradition struck this reader as a case of proof-texting writ large.
Out of fairness, however, I considered the possibility that Morgan was misinformed (i.e., working from a poor translation of the Oath). As best I can tell, he is quoting from a modernized version that the American Medical Association used to reprint in their Code of Medical Ethics. Here is how the AMA version renders the passage in question:
“That you will exercise your art solely for the cure of your patients, and will give no drug, perform no operation, for a criminal purpose, even if solicited, far less suggest it”
In this version, the Hippocratic condemnation of medically-assisted suicide has been softened as bad ethics is reduced to mere criminality. Yet, the demand that physicians work for the “cure” of their patients seems to preserve the core principle as to kill, most assuredly, is not to cure. So, even if Morgan is working from the AMA’s version of the Oath, his subsumption of Kevorkian “medicine” within a Hippocratic ethic still exceeds the bounds of credulity. To state the obvious, Kevorkian was no Hippocrates.
As for the appellation of “Dr. Compassion,” I won’t deny that Kevorkian viewed his advocacy of PAS as an expression of compassion for patients beset by intense suffering and pain. I do reject, however, the notion that slipping a patient a syringe full of poison can rightly be considered compassionate medicine, much less facilitative of a “higher good” per Morgan.